1967: Tomorrow - “My White Bicycle”
Long before Yes became one of the main pillars of 70s prog and an unofficial inspiration for 00s indie rock ambition (See Flaming Lips’ At War with the Mystics and The Decemberists’ Crane Wife for two examples), Steve Howe had already proven himself an amazing musician. His fluid guitar work with occasional excursions into exotic sounds was well cemented by his previous band, Tomorrow. They were a criminally underlooked band that deserves a place in history, if not for being an important lynchpin in psychedelia, then for their ecstatically played music.
Although now considered minor players in the London psychedelic scene – inevitably compared to Pink Floyd’s massive success and recognition – Tomorrow were one of the finest bands in the city playing far out music. On their signature number, “My White Bicycle,” most of the songs seems to be played backwards. Unlike San Francisco hippie bands, they weren’t all about “jamming.” And, unlike the Velvet Underground, they weren’t about testing the listener with noise and challenging sounds and themes. In other words, they weren’t made to be endured, they were made to be enjoyed. Tomorrow reflected a sound that became synonymous with LSD and wild parties, a sound that lasted from Sgt. Pepper until the arrival of folk rock (Fairport Convention, Incredible String Band, Nick Drake), heavy metal (Zeppelin, Sabbath, Purple) and, yes, prog rock.
And that’s why I love them. They summoned a ton of simple elements in an organic fashion and made them seem like the most insane thing in the world. Their music was ahead of their time, their performances filled with so much joy, madness, and primal energy that you can’t help but dance and scream with belligerent feeling, even if they are only talking about “green” modes of transportation.
1997: The Conet Project - Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations
If you’re deeply familiar with Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (as one should be), you know that at the end of “Poor Places,” amid the noise and the feedback, there is a stately female voice repeating the title of the album: Yankee. Hotel. Foxtrot. Yankee. Hotel. Foxtrot. What you may not know is that this is a sample from something called a shortwave numbers station. Shortwave numbers stations have been a favorite topic among conspiracy theorists for decades now; they emit mysterious broadcasts of series of numbers, letters, or phrases. The traditional story is that they are used by governments to communicate to spies (and a story in the Daily Telegraph in 1998 confirms this. A spokesman for the U.K.’s Department of Trade and Industry is quoted as saying, “They’re not, shall we say, for public consumption”). The important part, though, is that they are broadcasts of unknown origin and unknowable content, issuing forth, waiting to be interpreted. Wilco was in a legal battle concerning their use of the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sample, and their side of the argument hinged on the fact of the audio’s mysteriousness: who can own a sample that has no fixed origin or creator?
Wilco was being sued by Irdial-Discs, who released The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations in 1997. This album is the result of years of laborious study by label head Akin Fernandez, who spent long hours tracking these stations and keeping a log of his findings. It consists of 150 recordings of shortwave numbers stations with track titles such as “Three Note Oddity” and “Czech Lady.” Originally a labor of love for Fernandez, these recordings have gained a cult following in the 15 years since their release. Fernandez’s legal win over Wilco financed a second pressing of the record in 2004, and although the vinyl is currently out of print again, the publicity that the case created for the project expanded its audience considerably. It is now available online through the Internet Archive.
Listening to the record, one can tell why it has an appeal for a certain kind of found-sound fetishist. Though the recordings seemingly come from all over the world (they are spoken in English, Spanish, Czech, Russian, German, and Chinese, among other languages, but their points of origin are impossible to guess), they share a lo-fi fuzz and an incessant repetition of words and tones that instill a sense of fascinated dread. They accumulate a bit too much dread in the listener after their five-hour running time is up, but in short sessions these shortwave recordings provide a worthwhile glimpse into a paranoiac world.
1996: The Halo Benders - Don’t Tell Me Now
K Records has always seemed to be blessed with an aura of uncomplicated authenticity. Founded in 1982 by Olympia, Washington’s most quixotic cultural ambassador Calvin Johnson, the label helped lead indie rock to its heyday in the mid to late 90s. Everything about the fiercely independent label — right down to the logo, which was slapdash twee before slapdash twee was A Thing — smacked of DIY wholesomeness that was both unpretentious and endearing. So it’s not surprising that The Halo Benders, one of Johnson’s many pet projects on the label, is responsible for one of the era’s most easily likable albums, 1996’s Don’t Tell Me Now.
A collaborative effort between Johnson and Built to Spill frontman Doug Martsch (who’s career was about to hit its pinnacle with Perfect From Now On), the band embodied all the best parts of K Records — and Don’t Tell Me Now pushed all those parts to the fore. The label’s DIY touch underlies much of the the album’s charm. While today lo-fi is nearly always shorthand for “stylized tape fuzz and heavy-handed use of analog sounds,” the lo-fi of this record is understated in a way that has become rare. The songs sound loose and playful; the no-frills recording and production make it seem like you’re listening in on a low-key rehearsal. Tracks like “Halo Bender” and “Planned Obsolescence” shamble along with herky-jerky guitar and languid percussion. Much of the record shares this unguarded breeziness, a slack outlook that seems completely genuine.
Another real appeal comes from the band’s bizarre approach to songwriting — Don’t Tell Me Now is loose and playful by design. After sketching out a song’s structure, Johnson and Martsch would part ways and write lyrics and melodies separately, and rather than pick one, they would use both simultaneously. With Johnson intoning away in his distinctive baritone and Martsch’s adenoidal emoting, each song became a fractured duet with looks that overlapped and clashed. The discrepancy in voices lets you hear each vocal line independently; it also makes the whole operation sound like some deranged back-woods family band led by a retired codger and his teenage son. And if that sounds like an cheap jab, it isn’t. I imagine that’s just the slightly askew outsider sound the two were hoping for.
The trick is particularly effective on songs like “Bombshelter, Pt. 2,” where Johnson drones on about an elaborate plan to muck up the government like a sonorous Ted Kaczynski while his rant is punctuated by Martsch’s earnest crooning. It is simultaneously coolly detached and subtly catchy. Even when both vocalists play up the twee affectations that marked much of K Record’s early releases — on songs like “Flying Carpet” — the approach still completely works.
Overall, the Halo Bender’s reluctance to tighten up their playing and stick to one melody is the record’s major coup. Along with groups like Pavement and early Modest Mouse, the group really perfected transforming loose playing and relaxed energy into effective songwriting, an art that seems rarer and rarer. The current patch of guitar bands basking in the critical limelight — your TV on the Radios, Sleigh Bells, and even your Real Estates — have focus and drive to their songs that gives them a direct immediacy. And that’s great; but sometimes you just want to hear the excitement of a tune that sounds as if it’s held together by chicken wire.
2007: Colleen - Les Ondes Silencieuses
In order to dedicate all her time to figuring out how to make music with her first production software program, Colleen (Cécile Schott) abandoned a perfectly good job as a teacher at a French high school. Just last year, she mastered pottery; this too she abandoned. Her ceramics are very beautiful, like her compositions – both minimalist objects of fragile intricacy with a lot of space at the center. A large part of her musical labor was the painstaking task of recreating her compositions live with acoustic instruments, so the last few years have been understandably spent taking a break and figuring out what to do next musically.
Colleen was bracketed as an electronic artist in the aughts because she used looping pedals and software that blended samples from her own record collection. Her first record was basically an expert collage of her no doubt lovingly curated vinyl collection. I like to think that fans of the itunes genre tag mis-assigned Colleen’s style completely (it was known to happen back then). Her old vinyl record collection perhaps was the unusual musical instrument that made her first album, rather than the invisible computer program that marked her out as an electronic artist.
This is a woman who made a 14 track EP using music boxes (Colleen et les Boîtes à Musique), and spoke of the pleasure she derived from reviving the sounds of the viola da gamba. By Les Ondes Silenceuses, the samples were gone altogether and replaced with acoustic instruments. Even the loops were less evident. “Echoes and Coral” was a track that explored the unusual perfection of struck crystal glasses. Other instruments used on the record were the spinet (a form of harpsichord), classical guitar, and clarinet.
The album has the feel early recorded music – an alternative to classical music in the early twentieth century, and almost as much of an underground obsession as experimental and electronic music for adventurous collectors (the impetus for the founding of the Nonesuch label, in fact). In Colleen’s career electronic music seems to have flowed back out again, to the still waters – Les Ondes Silenceuses – of her most recent record, which explores the sonic possibilities of forgotten acoustic instruments.
There is an Indonesian word for a group of instruments that are tuned to be played together and are rarely played separately. One of Colleen’s songs is called “Gamelan” after this term. Of course I searched the internet expecting to find an exotic, individual instrument crafted from the fine hairs of an Asian breed of rabbit (not precisely, but you get my drift). Les Ondes Silenceuses sounds like it was made for a gamelan. In many ways the album’s compositions are the sum of their instruments – their voices, their possibilities, their melancholy. It will be interesting to see whether Colleen will continue to explore the experimental possibilities of older, acoustic instruments on her next record, or whether she will dust off her electronic tools again. Either way, the result will no doubt sound as if this selection was the final one.
1996: Swans - “How They Suffer”
If you have a chance to piece your skull back together after hearing Swans’ The Seer, this older track from their two-and-a-half-hour 90s masterpiece Soundtracks for the Blind (even longer than The Seer) shows them at their most quiet and emotionally suffocating. It was unsettling when I first heard it, but over the years “How They Suffer” has become one of my very favorite songs to ever spring from Michael Gira’s skull. “Suffer” is a stitched together sound collage and sees Swans in one of their most abstract moods; it opens with a drone, shifts to an interview, moves into a gorgeous instrumental bridge, and then closes with a second interview.
The first recording features a man discussing in a very rambling way the issues that he has with his eyes. He stammers and forgets his place, but eventually gets to the point as he matter-of-factly says, “I am what they call… legally blind.” His explanations use medical terms he doesn’t sound like he fully understands, things that he probably knows just from hearing his doctor say it so many times. Yet when he bluntly gets to the point of the issue it resonates with an overwhelming sadness.
The second interview featuring an elderly woman continues in a similar fashion, where she explains her current health situations. She’s trying to eat everyday so that she can get stronger, but says so in a voice that has accepted that it won’t happen. This track’s use of interview recordings is done in such an understated way, and while many parts of Soundtracks get brutally heavy, it’s this whispered quiet moment that always shook me to the core.
1980, 2011: Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry - The Return of Pipecock Jackxon
There have existed a gaggle of artists who for much or all of their careers traipsed the shaky tightrope between genius and insanity. Hell, it can be argued that all great artists do this in some regard. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry belongs to that significantly smaller yet still sizeable group who not only made the leap of faith into batshit insanity, but continued to release quality work afterward. Of course, audiences delight in the archetypal image of the crazy-eyed rock star and thus, through romanticization and revisionism, unfocused albums are often elevated to cult classic status. (Is Syd Barrett’s solo career really as remarkable as the psych-rock bloggerati would have us believe?) So, lest we devolve to a torch-wielding mob demanding human sacrifice, it’s important that when we listen to a record like The Return of Pipecock Jackxon we keep in mind that shit-smeared walls do not necessarily equate to high art.
Of course, sometimes they do.
Originally released in 1980 on Black Star Liner, The Return was re-issued in 2011 by Honest Jons Records. While I’m not aware of any difference in sound quality between the two issues, the latter (pictured above and spinning at my side as I type this article) comes packaged with some incredibly insightful liner notes that offer far better historic context than I ever could, explaining in some detail exactly what kind of shit was smeared on the walls of Perry’s backyard studio, Black Ark: “layers upon layers of paint and posters and book pages, a chronological history of Scratch’s mental state,” says photographer Bill Bradford. Quotes like that one and “the sonic index of Perry’s psychic unraveling” – used by liner notes author David Katz to describe the record – might lead one to believe that The Return is a particularly dark album. However, such is not the case.
While there are dashes of frustration and desperation whisked about, most if not all of them are tinctured with a lighter shade of introspective, absurdist humor. Scratch is indeed losing his mind here, but one would be shortsighted to assume that he isn’t fully aware of and embracing that fact. Think about those instances when the world around you seems so totally ass-backward that all you can do is laugh hysterically. That’s what this record sounds like to me.
From Perry’s spontaneous recital of all 26 letters of the alphabet in the epic opener “Bed Jammin” (a conversational dub response to Bob Marley’s “Jamming”?) to the backup vocal refrain of “koo koo” in “Who Killed the Chicken,” the absurdity of it all is acknowledged and thus tangible; lyrical flotsam drifting in a (mostly) smooth sea of psychedelic dub grooves. I say “mostly” because in spite of the bluesy guitar licks and hazy synths, there are some rough patches that welcomingly hark back to the badman vibes of Upsetters 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle. That being said, if the title “Babylon Cookie Jar a Crumble” isn’t enough to put a smile on your face, then Scratch’s cartoonish cackle at the end of that song probably won’t either.
There is much that can be written about this album’s other themes – the intermingling of Jamaican and European cultures, the eternal battles between love/good and hate/evil, and the humble pursuit of idyllic silence — but it is Lee’s ability and determination to find humor in dire circumstances that rings truest to me. Just under a year ago, I saw Scratch perform at B.B. King’s in Manhattan. He dropped many a gem that night (read more here), but without a doubt, the one that best informs how I hear The Return of Pipecock Jackxon is this: “I don’t drink anymore, I don’t smoke anymore. The only thing I have to keep me happy is craziness.”